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Monday, April 17, 2023

April 17, 2023: Soap Opera Studying: 1930s Origins

[April 22nd will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of the king of primetime soap operas, Aaron Spelling. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Spelling and other soap opera contexts, leading up to a crowd-sourced cliffhanger of a weekend post! So share your soapy responses and thoughts, you evil twins you!]

On five pioneering women who together helped create the genre on 1930s radio.

1)      Irna Phillips: The program generally accepted as the first daytime serial, WGN’s Painted Dreams, which debuted in October 1930, was the brainchild of Jewish American actress and screenwriter Irna Phillips. Phillips also frequently voiced the show’s main character, Irish American widow Mother Moynihan, but writing and showrunning in this nascent genre were really her passions—she would go on to create five more radio soaps over the next decade, including the first to transition to television (The Guiding Light). Phillips likewise transitioned to TV, writing for many TV soaps, including some of the most popular and enduring (As the World Turns and Days of Our Lives, for example), and consulting for one of the first primetime soaps, 1964’s Peyton Place. But it was her radio origins that truly embodied where this genre likewise got its start.

2)      Bess Flynn: No radio or TV program is the product of only one artist of course, and another key player (in every sense) in Painted Dreams was contributing writer Bess Flynn, who also sometimes voiced Mother Moynihan. Like Phillips, Flynn would go on to create a number of other radio soap operas as well, including one of the longest-running and most successful daytime serials, Bachelor’s Children (1935-1946). That show became closely associated with its two male stars, Hugh Studebaker and Olan Soule; but while their performances as the pair of titular bachelors (who, in a plotline that wouldn’t really fly in 2023, fell in love with two young women for whom they served as guardians after their father’s death) were what audiences heard, it was the words and work of Flynn that undoubtedly lay behind this show’s striking success.

3)      Clara, Lu, ‘n Em: There’s never just one “first” in a genre, and at the same time that Painted Dreams was on the air, so too was another very early and successful WGN soap opera. Clara, Lu, ‘n Em first premiered at night in June 1930, and when it was picked up by NBC’s radio network in January 1931 it became the first nationally broadcast soap era (a year later it moved to a daytime slot and so likewise became the first networked daytime soap). This show was the brainchild of a trio of talented young artists: Louise Starkey, Isobel Carothers, and Helen King created the concept while students at Northwestern University, wrote all the scripts, and performed as the title characters. While these various shows and artists gradually went their separate ways, they were all writing and performing at WGN in 1930-31, and I like to think that these five groundbreaking women got the chance to chat occasionally about the compelling new genre they were together creating.

Next soap-post tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other soap opera contexts or stories you’d share?

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